Representatives from Minnesota-based Blue Zones Project said Northwest Arkansas is the healthiest area of the state, but they qualified that achievement by saying it’s like being “valedictorian of summer school,” given Arkansas ranks 48 out of 50 states on Gallup’s Well-Being rankings.
Tony Buettner, senior vice president of business development and national spokesperson for Blue Zones, led presentations in Rogers Tuesday and Wednesday (Feb. 12-13) to assess the region’s interest in becoming a certified Blue Zone — areas that share common lifestyle characteristics that contribute to better health and longevity.
On Wednesday, Buettner’s team spoke to several dozen business and civic leaders at Embassy Suites Hotel to share details on what it takes to become a Blue Zone and what the payoff could be. The cumulative regional value measured by medical savings and work productivity would be $134 million by year five. The total cumulative impact for 10 years is pegged at $1.13 billion.
Blue Zones officials said the process of transition would take up to four years and it would start with the early assessment of interest by key stakeholders. The entire journey goes through three phases with the first being a discovery phase led by Blue Zones officials on the ground to work with regional stakeholders.
“We meet the community where they are,” members of the Blue Zones team said.
They explained the discovery process takes between six and eight months. They work with a local team to understand the culture and present status of health and well-being. The initial findings are gathered through focus groups and interviews as well as public forums which are then compiled into a discovery report.
A steering committee would then be appointed to put together citizen-led leadership teams to work on public policy, and social and individual engagement with schools, employers, restaurants, grocery stores and faith-based organizations.
The groups work on taking the discovery report and implementing key changes and finding opportunities for change in different areas. At this phase, Blue Zones sets up a local presence by hiring six to eight people to create a Blue Zones hub for the region. Lastly, there is a community kickoff — an event or series of ways people can pledge to be part of the Blue Zones journey. That could be pledging to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets daily, walking or exercising more, or perhaps taking more time to socialize with friends on a regular basis.
Buettner said while Northwest Arkansas overall has a higher well-being ranking than the U.S., the region has nearly four times the stress levels in individuals, which ranks in the bottom quartile. He added that highly successful regions of rapid growth often experience elevated stress levels and there are ways to bring that down through the Blue Zones plan.
If the region were to reach Blue Zones status, it would join 46 communities around the world already there. Buettner said Blue Zones worked with the entire state of Iowa — the top U.S. pork state — and has seen notable reductions in obesity and tobacco usage, as well as healthier food choices because of the effort.
If Northwest Arkansas does take the Blue Zones journey, the certification would last for three years, but the well-being ranking is monitored annually by the Blue Zones team that would be on the ground in the region.
When asked how Blue Zones gets paid for its work, Buettner said the project is underwritten by partners and large stakeholders in the region. He said each community decides how they want to pay for their work and guidance in the process.
Communities have the choice to keep Blue Zones as a consultant after certification is reached or they may want to get the plan and implement independently.
Buettner said when engagement begins to take place between the five areas where people spend most of their time — grocery/restaurant, schools, worksite, civic/faith organizations and other entertainment — a chain reaction can begin.
He said in just three months after opening a healthy check-out lane, a HyVee grocery store concept in Iowa reported healthy beverage sales increased by 122%, product sales increased by 15% and fruits and vegetable sales at salad bars rose 25%. Also in Iowa, 60% of the customers at Sandwich Bowl in Harland now request a healthy side of apples or carrots with their meals instead of fries or chips.
Buettner said the change can be as subtle as giving customers a healthier choice instead of giving them a mountain of fries with every sandwich or burger and still make a big difference.
Fort Worth, Texas, is one of the newest Blue Zones and the largest with over 770,000 residents. The city engaged over 3,000 residents with purpose-driven workshops, cooking demonstrations and other events to create a close, social network.
The Blues Zones team said it would take about 10% of the adult population buying into the project and making the commitment to be active in the journey in educating others. Buettner said a vocal 10% can often win over 90%. Another metric was that 70% awareness would yield about 30% participation. Lastly, he said 15 true ambassadors who are “all-in” can create a lift in the overall well-being of the region.
Blue Zones said if the region opts to do nothing and be happy with its place among the rest of the state and slightly better than the national average, the estimated impact by 2030 would be $2.3 billion annually in additional medical and productivity costs.
The sponsors for the Blue Zones Project visit and presentation were Mercy Health, Northwest Arkansas Council, University of Arkansas, UAMS Northwest Regional Campus, Endeavor Foundation and Washington Regional Medical Center. Blue Zones officials said healthcare providers are among those who typically benefit the most through Blue Zones transitions. Buettner said employers also can have a big impact, and the region’s large employers and its supplier base also present an opportunity to engage during the discovery phase.